Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The Failure of Success

I was interviewed yesterday by a colleague about the Co-Creativity of Hand and Mind research group that has recently formed at Gray’s School of Art. One of the questions was “Tell me about a failed work - Why was it a failure?”. If you follow this blog you’ll have noticed that I've written about failure quite a lot - I guess it’s because failure seems to be such a commonly encountered concept, and issue, in art and art education (and not just a concept: for some students it's a genuine threat). But when I began to think of my own failures I realised that these are relatively few and far between. I'm not saying I've never made mistakes, broken things or made things in the studio that didn't work or that I'm not proud of. On the contrary, I've made more than my fair share of such 'failures', but I realise that I don't actually consider these failures - they're just sketches, rejects, breakages or experiments. The only true failures I feel I've produced are the works that have been exhibited in public but that have broken down in some way or that didn’t function as intended. And even the works that haven’t failed technically, but which I’m not proud of, are not so much failures as simply not my best works.

But it's not really as simple as a few inferior or malfunctioning artworks, but rather the damage to my reputation that emerges as the real failure. Artworks can be repaired or replaced by better ones but reputation damage is much harder to salvage. You might well ask why I bother then to complicate the issue by making the kind of art that can break down or “fail” in this way - why not just stick with inanimate work? When I think back over my practice as an artist, it’s evident that I've tended to take fewer such risks in recent years. This might be thought of as an admission that I've become somewhat more risk averse in my middle age. Perhaps, but then again there is an alternative interpretation that one can take, and inevitably it’s the one that I will claim. In my youth the use of materials and processes that could recognisably fail - in the obvious sense of the word - meant that I had a clear yardstick by which my achievements could be gauged: if the work worked then it worked and whilst it might be conceptually or aesthetically flawed, at least I could feel that it did what it was supposed to do. The parameters of success and failure were therefore fairly transparent. And in a context where concepts and aesthetics are about as fixed and predictable as the British weather, a certain amount of control seemed to count for a great deal.

But 20 years down the line, I'm not so much in need of the reassurance of fixed parameters, so the potential for genuine failure (especially in terms of reputation harm) has become far less of a threat. I'm quite content with the ambiguity and contestability of conceptual and aesthetic success and failure; in fact it’s a liberation. I don’t see myself as risk averse - I just don't measure my artistic achievements by other people's yardsticks to the same degree any more. Now, I realise that this is no doubt partly due to the relative security of my position as a teacher, but on the other hand, I'd argue that I’m simply no longer concerned about failure because I'm no longer bent on success. As I've said here before, success is a false aspiration in my view - we'd be far better off aiming at fulfillment in life.

This brings me back to education - that set of institutions tasked with the responsibility of providing support, resources and guidance for learning but that also take it upon themselves to enshrine peoples’ future reputations in those impoverished forms of feedback known as grades and which, despite legions of highly educated employees, still chime in with the mainstream misconception that success is the pinnacle of achievement.


Seán said...

Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.

What does it mean that success is as dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
your position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.

What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.
When we don't see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?


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